An island of wonders

Arran is a magical spot, a short boat trip from the west coast of Scotland. With its high granite crags, ruined castles, dramatic paths and views, it never fails to inspire awe in Margaret Campbell

Arguably the best view of Arran comes on departure, when you turn round for one final, wistful look. Here's a ruined tower, lifted straight from Tintin's adventures on the Black Island; there's a loch whose waters fall in shimmering waves as the summer ferry cuts her course; and, dominating the skyline, the jagged ridge of Goat Fell. After blissful days exploring the island, I was sailing from Lochranza to Claonaig in Kintyre – and, in a sense, back to where my trip had begun.

Arguably the best view of Arran comes on departure, when you turn round for one final, wistful look. Here's a ruined tower, lifted straight from Tintin's adventures on the Black Island; there's a loch whose waters fall in shimmering waves as the summer ferry cuts her course; and, dominating the skyline, the jagged ridge of Goat Fell. After blissful days exploring the island, I was sailing from Lochranza to Claonaig in Kintyre – and, in a sense, back to where my trip had begun.

Mist permitting, Arran was the first thing I saw every morning from my window overlooking Campbeltown Loch, near the foot of the Kintyre peninsula. As the gull flies, only a few miles separate Kintyre and Arran, but the views across Kilbrannan Sound depend on that most fickle of entities, Scottish weather. Some days, you couldn't see past the bump of Davaar Island; on others, Blackwaterfoot was no more than a hazy line of identical blocks against a dark hillside. But on the rare days when the air was sharp and clear, we could pick out cars snaking along the coast, past white-washed houses that seemed close enough to touch. And we'd wonder: did they gaze over at us, too? What did Kintyre look like from the other side? And what lay beyond Blackwaterfoot, its evocative name more reminiscent of Dakota plains than a quiet village on the west coast of Scotland?

When I finally made it to Arran, I discovered an island that encapsulates much that is good about Scotland. The dimensions are undaunting: no more than 20 miles from north to south, about 12 miles across, with a 56-mile coastal road encircling the rocky core. Plenty of interest is packed into this pocket-sized island, yet the melancholy emptiness that characterises so much of Scotland is never hard to find between the scattered townships.

The first stop was Brodick Castle, a National Trust for Scotland property overlooking the bay where most visitors arrive. The 14th-century origins have been almost obliterated by repeated renovations and occasional incursions. This was the seat of the Dukes of Hamilton for hundreds of years, and its turbulent history can be retraced inside.

The red sandstone walls look suitably baronial, but lack the grandeur or romantic bleakness of some other Scottish castles. The well-kept gardens and park comprise a bigger draw, with a walled garden, gazebo, rhododendrons and monkey trees scattered throughout the grounds. Few other baronial seats can boast of being the starting point for one of Scotland's greatest walks. From the grounds, a path leads off to the summit of Goat Fell. The walk takes anything between five and eight hours, and requires little more than average stamina, appropriate footwear and warm clothing. From the summit, 2,866 feet up, panoramic views unfold: the Clyde, Ayrshire, Kintyre and, on a clear day, the coast of Ireland.

Goat Fell and the mountains around it reveal Arran's unusual geological structure, which attracts dozens of hammer-wielding students every year and helped forge the reputation of James Hutton, the founder of modern geology. The craggy granite peaks in the north are the eroded remains of molten rock that erupted through the earth's surface, then cooled slowly. Further south, the landscape is softer and less dramatic, though punctuated in places where igneous eruptions were followed by rapid hardening. For some textbook basalt formations, visit the spectacular cliffs at Drumadoon. Victorian legend has it that Robert the Bruce was inspired by a spider in the "King's Cave" here (more probably, it was a shelter for Fionn, a hero of Irish folklore).

Arran's geological feast continues. The landscape is dotted with granite boulders, once transported by ice sheets. Raised beaches are further evidence of the island's explosive past.

Not all of the rocks jutting from Arran's surface were deposited there in the ice age. There are 10 sets of Bronze Age standing stones on Arran, some linked to burial cairns. Most are on the west coast fairly close to Machrie Moor. The circle at Auchagallon lies halfway up a slope in an area that was once the centre of a Neolithic community with a strong ceremonial culture. Some of the rocks protrude clearly, others have listed or sunk into the soggy earth. Below, the waves lap on a shingle beach, as they have done ever since these strange monuments were erected.

The first half of the 20th century brought some new visitors to Arran: holiday-makers from Glasgow heading "down the water" for their two-week annual break at one of the seaside resorts on the south-east quadrant of Arran. Lamlash, Whiting Bay, Laggs and Kildonan rise up behind sandy beaches along a series of protected bays. To emphasise the balmy climate, the shore fronts have been planted with palms.

Diametrically across the island, the human population diminishes and deer prevail. Around Lochranza, they graze in the village itself. Seals can be glimpsed bobbing all around the coast, and I stopped counting the pheasants darting across the Tarmac.

The String Road was whimsically named by mariners who could see it winding over Arran's hills, and it's one of very few routes that cuts across the island. It slices from Brodick to Blackwaterfoot through valleys devastated by the Highland Clearances, and is a good place to spot eagles soaring above the mountains or look out for the 100-odd other bird species.

And what of Blackwaterfoot itself? Well, it turned out to be the largest village on the west of Arran, as attractive close up as from a distance. Set amid farmland, the white houses that we had once looked at with such curiosity are grouped round a small harbour. A dark burn rushing seaward gives the settlement its name. Blackwaterfoot is a good embarkation point for pony trekking, fishing and visiting the caves at Drumadoon point.

A little further north, near the golf course at Machrie, I stopped to watch modern white windmills rotating furiously over the Kilbrannan Sound. Breeze is rarely in short supply here. On the other side of Kintyre, the sun was setting over the Atlantic, burnishing the horizon in a deep-orange glow and casting its last bright rays over the beach. After all these years, Arran hadn't disappointed.

Traveller's guide

Getting there: Caledonian MacBrayne (08705 650 000, www.calmac.co.uk) sails frequently from Ardrossan on the mainland to the principal port of Brodick. The closest airport is Prestwick, with services from London Stansted and Bournemouth on Ryanair (0870 246 0000, www.ryanair.com); Glasgow's main airport, with frequent flights from all over Britain, is also reasonably close to Ardrossan.

If you are travelling by car and wish to leave by a different route, there are also Caledonian MacBrayne services from Claonaig in Kintyre to Lochranza on Arran.

Places to visit: Arran Heritage Museum, Brodick (01770 302636, www.arranmuseum.co.uk): open 10.30am-4.30pm daily until 27 October, admission £2.25, family ticket £6.

South Bank Farm, Kildonan (01770 820206) is the venue for rare breeds of sheep, and sheepdog demonstrations on Sunday, Tuesday and Thursdays at 2.30pm. It opens 10am-5pm daily except Saturday until late October, admission £3.50.

Brodick Castle, Garden and Country Park (01770 302202). The castle opens daily until late October; the grounds open all year. Admission to the castle plus grounds is £7 (family ticket covering two adults and up to four children, £19); to the grounds only, £3.50 (family ticket £9.50).

The Isle of Arran distillery in Lochranza (01770 830264, www.arranwhisky.com) opens 10am-6pm daily until late October, admission £3.50 including a tasting; under 12s are free, but do not get to taste the products.

More information: Arran's tourist information centre (01770 303774, www.arrantourism.com) is beside the ferry terminal at Brodick.

A haven for boats and people alike

Holy isle has been a place of sanctuary for centuries

One of the most intriguing places on Arran is actually another island, within the embrace of Lamlash Bay in the south-west of the isle. If they towed the Rock of Gibraltar around to the Firth of Clyde, this is roughly what it would look like.

Seen from the Ayrshire coast, Holy Isle blends into the landscape, its muted colours indistinguishable against the hills behind it; close up, its bare summit and steep slopes are unmistakable.

Once used by Norse and Viking fleets in search of a temporary haven, the island's rugged isolation has also drawn individuals looking for quiet and tranquillity, notably a 6th-century hermit, St Molaise.

He was a student of St Columba, who took Christianity to the Picts of northern Scotland and the islands. (Arran was astride one of the main Celtic shipping arteries between Ireland and Scotland, and it's believed St Columba himself spent some time on the island.)

You can visit St Molaise's remarkably comfortable cave; the Vikings ruled this part of Scotland for a while, and some of them carved their initials in the cavern. There is also the inevitable holy well, and some lovely walks punctuated by Tibetan painted rock carvings created by the island's new owners.

For more than a decade, Holy Isle has been home to the Samye Ling Buddhist community, whose chief concerns are world peace, the environment and spiritual growth. They are developing an Interfaith Centre For Peace at the north end of the island.

The centre can be visited by arrangement (see www.holyisland.org for more information, or call 01387 373232 ext 28, between noon-1pm and 6-7pm). The community has planted thousands of trees, which are gradually softening the island's exposed appearance.

Buses marked "Holy Island" meet the ship from Ardrossan at Brodick, and take travellers to Whiting Bay, from where ferries to Holy Isle leave every hour or so during the morning, returning up to 4.30pm in the afternoon.

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